Attachment theory or attachment is the foundation that helps explain not only the importance of leaders relationships but also an individuals functioning effectively and their ability to engage with their work. Attachment gives deeper meaning to the behaviors and emotions that leaders see in others everyday but struggle to understand and deal with. Attachment helps to explain how individuals “survive” internal bouts of uncertainty, confusion, and fear, as well as organizational conflicts, and engagement in their work and relationships. Attachment also explains how behaviors, once necessary to perform and succeed, are now interfering with productive relationships, and hinders rather than advances individual and team performance.
John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst, originally developed attachment theory. Attachment Theory describes the formation and quality of relationships between individuals, particularly during times of stress, uncertainty, and confusion. Attachment is widely considered one of the most influential, scientifically tested, theories of human behavior and emotional regulation within the workplace. Seven decades of research has shown that attachment is a universal characteristic that predicts an individual’s development of relationship competence and positive self-image, essential elements of a leader’s ability to engage and inspire others and to be inspired and engaged themselves.
When you work with a public that is often very demanding and fickle at the same time , economic conditions, as well as the globalization and diversity of the marketplace, and you add in the uncertainty of shareholder concerns, supply chain disruptions, advancing technology, and new and expanding government policies and regulations, these struggles are quite likely to create the types of anxious, confusing, and threatening circumstances that activate attachment. Attachment has four defining characteristics:
- The primary feature is to and maintain physical and psychological proximity to the caretaker, that special individual who is stronger, wiser, and more capable.
- The second characteristic is that the attachment figure or primary caregiver acts as a safe haven or a source of comfort and security for the individual so that they experience diminished anxiety and/or relief from threatening circumstances.
- Third, the attachment figure serves as a secure base from which the individual explores the social and physical world. Here that means he/she is free to engage with coworkers, leadership and the organization, to be innovative, and problem solve. Just as Mitzi was free to continue on with our morning walk.
- Lastly, the individual experiences increased anxiety during unwanted or prolonged separation from the attachment figure.
Our early experiences actually shape our brain circuits and become represented as mental models of how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about others. Through repeated experiences, our mental models become automatic, acting at an unconscious level, and they have a lasting effect on future relationships and interactions at work!
By viewing the world through our mental models, all of us enact or construe experiences to fit their particular model. These unconscious strategies shape the way we interpret our interactions with clients, our coworkers, and managers, and affect the ways we behave towards others. Positive mental models become a source of strength, confidence, flexibility, and adaptability. Negative working models are a source of rigid or chaotic thinking that can lead to inappropriate or dysfunctional behaviors, the results of which stifle a person’s confidence and ability to actively engage with others and their work.
Because our brains are constantly bombarded with information. In order to do our work, our brains need to filter out and prioritize the information it receives. And when information is missing, our brains, based on this filtering, often fill in the blanks. Again, so we can go about our daily lives and function at work. That’s the good news! The bad news is that the brain also filters information and works to exclude information that goes against what we believe and expect from other people and about the circumstances or situations that we are in. And it does this even when there is evidence to the contrary. This is one of the big reasons efforts at organizational change can be so difficult.
Mary Ainsworth, a colleague of Bowlby’s, documented that these powerful mental models become organized into different patterns of behavior she called attachment styles. Currently four attachment styles have been identified.
The first attachment style is called secure. When the mother or caregiver consistently engages with an infant in a timely and appropriate fashion, any perceived “threat” is reduced. Then, the infant is able to calm down and she experiences her caregiver as reliable, helpful and supportive. The infant feels safe and secure in her world. Just as Mitzi felt safe with me.
Securely attached people have positive feelings about themselves and others, and can fully bring themselves towards their work and towards working with others, as well as learning new things (i.e. a new computer system). Moreover, if they run into difficulties, they feel confident that they can problem solve and/or gain support and help from their supervisor, manager or leader. The individual understands and balances the need for working alone and working together as a team.
Further, research findings show that when employees have a supportive, secure relationship with their leader, one where they feel a sense of security, they are more likely to trust others, work harder and follow directions, and to willingly devote themselves to the goals and objectives of the organization.
The second attachment style is called insecure/anxious. When an employee is faced with stressful situations and the leader’s responsiveness is out of sync with the employees needs, the employee experiences the leaders, or attachment figure, as unreliable, worries about the attachment figures support and accessibility, and is uncertain that relief from the stress will be provided. Their success at seeking and maintaining proximity to their attachment figure has been experienced as erratic, causing the employee to remain in a heightened state of anxiety.
Internally, the threat of disappointing, making a mistake, or not knowing makes the employee constantly strive to cover every eventuality. They constantly ask themselves, “Have I?” “Did I?” “Will I?” And “What if?” This constant anxiety takes a lot of energy out of us and our brains will not allow us to remain in this chronic state of heightened anxiety for very long. This can lead to excessive feelings and behavior based on guilt, agitation, and even anger, as well as poorer work performance.
The last two types of attachment style occur due to a leader’s ongoing or constant failure to provide support and comfort to their employees, they have abdicated their responsibility as the stronger, wiser, and more capable attachment figure.
The insecure/dismissing individual holds a positive image of himself or herself but a negative image or distrust of everyone else. They have an over-inflated view of themselves and attempt to control their fear, their surroundings, and their relationships. Exercising control over their surroundings gives this individual the illusion of safety and security. In some cases, they may engage in the bullying of others and/or pretend neediness or friendship as a means to control others and relieve their own fears or uncertainties.
The fourth attachment style is insecure/fearful. An insecure/fearful individual has a negative image of themselves and lacks trust in themselves or others. Evidence suggests that these individuals appear to be the most susceptible as targets of exploitation or bullying. Highly sensitive and fearful of rejection, these individuals are professionally very competent and skillful and because of this, most likely to be the first ones promoted.
Employees in all four attachment categories experience varying levels of stress, anxiety and confusion, however it is how their leadership responds to their distress that in part determines how well the employee ultimately copes with the stress, anxiety and confusion, as well as engaging actively at work.
Attachment provides the ideal framework for studying leadership and engagement because it stipulates that the need for security and protection is universal and a fundamental need for all employees! What this means is that leaders have their own attachment needs to be concerned with. Therefore, leaders have a dual role to play: one is that of a caregiver, available, supportive and helpful to the employees, and the other as a care-seeker, needing their own support and help to meet the demands of leadership and functioning work. Imagine the conflict resulting from a leader or manager asking and promoting engagement when everything inside of them is saying something different!
In general, as leaders, the feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness, confusion and anxiety that you experience in response to employees, are all useful tools for recognizing how various attachment styles are brought into the workplace and interact with each other to help or hinder inspiring and engaging others and engaging with others.
The principle objective here was to indicate the importance of positive relationship functioning between leaders and employees and its importance to active engagement at work. While there are significant challenges relative to leadership and engagement remaining, this post suggests three of those challenges might be:
- Where are YOU when it comes to providing the safe and secure environment? Like all positive, well-functioning relationships, if the leader is secure, then the promotion of safety and security for the employees is somewhat assured, freeing the employee to learn, develop and perform (i.e. engagement). However if the leader is insecure, then it’s quite likely the employees may adopt mistaken behaviors or actions he/she gets from the leader, under the mistaken belief that these behaviors and actions are the norm. In the latter case, the cycle of disrupted relationships continues, affecting the engagement of both of you.
- Once you are aware of how relationships can hamper your efforts at inspiring and engaging with others, then you are in a better position to do something about it.
- That we have widely different levels beyond which we begin to feel anxious and unsafe, and relief from these threatening circumstances becomes the primary motivator of our behavior.
Engagement is a choice, not a process. Engagement is a feeling, not a command. When threatening circumstances appear, leadership becomes a choice, and engagement happens when leaders choose to look out for those they lead, to provide an environment and the types of relationships that makes everyone feel safe and secure—just like with Mitzi and me (see the start of the first blog of this blog chain).
Note: This post is based, and has been expanded, on a talk given by Simon Sinek that is available on Ted.com. It is also based on a presentation I made at a leadership conference, May 2015, hosted by the Midwest Division of Quest Diagnostics in Denver, CO. Slides and complete citations for the presentation are available upon request.